Ben Harper (Peter Graves) steals $10,000 and leaves the money in the keeping of his children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), hoping they might one day find their way out of the economic trauma of the Depression-era South. John knows where the money is hidden, but Harper has sworn him to secrecy, a move John quickly resents when posing preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) comes to town. Powell shared a cell with Harper, who, immediately after hiding the money, was arrested for murder and armed robbery. Ben is executed, and the wicked Powell, released from jail, moves in on Willa (Shelly Winters), Harper's gullible widow, hoping to draw out the secret of the money's location. As tensions mount, it becomes progressively clear that the only hope for the children's salvation rests with regional matriarch and philanthropist Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) who always keeps her doors open for displaced youngsters.
It's not often that I'm stumped by the question of why a classic is a classic, but thanks to Night of the Hunter, I know it's not unthinkable. Yes, the cinematography is amazing, even by the standards of film noir, but the pace is rushed, the plot is a walking disaster, and the characters if we can call them that more closely resemble flotsam.
The movie opens with Gish's disembodied head floating on a backdrop of stars, the drifting heads of children listening with rapt attention to her formulaic Bible-talk. Even if we grasp the intended irony of the moment a dreamy segue into a deadly nightmare there's no escaping how God-blastedly cheesy the image looks, how it feels more like a presage to Sesame Street or an eighties sit-com than a purportedly moving work of horror. As an intro, it destroys any precedent for subtlety. We're less than a minute into the movie and it's already abundantly clear that our storytellers have absolutely no faith in our ability to figure anything out for ourselves.
The trend continues with the introduction of Harry Powell. Eschewing what could have been a very creepy experience encountering the dark side of Powell in a slow, subtle, and action-driven manner Powell hits us over the head with a string of didactic monologues, our occasion for discovery smashed right at the outset. Ben Harper, by contrast, is dispensed with so quickly we're barely aware of his presence. He's a completely wasted opportunity, a perfunctory McGuffin for an even more perfunctory plot. The movie would have been much more powerful if John had gone through the story haunted by the memory of a loving father who died in a desperate act to provide for him. Instead, Harper's only function is to set the story in motion, and as soon as he does this, he disappears from view and from memory.
Willa Harper is even more obnoxious. A pivotal factor in the story, Willa's fanatic devotion to Powell is the main instigation of everything else that follows, but because we never get a sense of who Willa was prior to Powell's arrival, her devotion feels unfounded, her behavior seems unreasonable, and, as a consequence, everything else in the story feels like it's balancing on thin air. Why is this woman so easily brainwashed? Why does Powell consistently come out on top? Every single plot-point is, at best, the product of characters acting mysteriously, and at worst, the product of characters behaving in a manner completely opposed to reason. How an entire town can get swept up in the patently obvious lies of a figure like Powell is beyond me, especially to the extent that they side against their own. There's nothing particularly strategic about Powell's methods, nor is he notably charismatic or even all that bright. He constantly loses his temper, performs actions so rash and brainless you'd expect immediate rejoinder, and holds among his many beliefs the bone-headed conviction that the best way to track down a fugitive is to ride through open country and sing at the top of his lungs. Yet Powell always gets way, because the rest of the universe is too stupid to stop him, and it's precisely this idiocy that drives the story forward, not the heroes, and certainly not the villain.
Which brings me to the last point: acting, i.o.w. what the devil is everyone smoking? I respect Robert Mitchum a great deal, but his performance as Powell is woefully over-the-top, in-your-face, and not the least bit compelling. Gish is great, but the credits start rolling before she's even gotten her feet on the ground. Shelly Winters is a tremendous actress, and she does her best as Willa, but again, the character is so poorly written that she comes across feeling like a mariner who's been thrown off the edge of a ship, floundering for all she's worth, but no match for the dead-weight of the screenplay, which drags her to the bottom and feels no remorse. Worst of all is Chapin as John, suffering from prolifically delayed reaction time, always lagging at least a second-and-a-half behind whatever he's supposed to be responding to. Expressions of shock and anger seem to come out of nowhere, a clear indication of his being taught to look and act in a particular way at a particular moment without anyone telling him why. I'm not blaming the kid for this. I'm blaming Charles Laughton, who found children so dislikable he dumped them all on Mitchum, who did his best to direct them, but was clearly not up to the punch.
All in all, I'm at a loss as to why this movie continues to garner such widespread acclaim, save the unfortunate reality that the herd mentality of movie criticism discourages any kind of dissension, so we continue trumpeting the virtues of fossils, long after they've outlived their usefulness.
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